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What Did Pope Francis Really Do During The “Dirty War”?

On March 13, at a dinner with the cardinals who had just elected him as the new pontiff, Pope Francis quipped, “May God forgive you for what you have done.” When just two days later the Holy See publicly defended the pontiff — against accusations of complicity in human-rights abuses — men of lesser faith might have looked back at the Pope’s joke with suspicion.

No sooner had Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica than whispers of his having had a shady past began circulating. As whispers tend to do, they multiplied and the story spread like wildfire around the globe. The Catholic Church has enough problems, people began to say, how could it fail so badly in its background checks?

Where had this story come from?

It dates back more than three decades to Argentina’s so-called “dirty war”; the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship that killed an estimated 30,000 people. The most serious allegation against Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio (as Pope Francis was known until last week) is that in May 1976 he allowed the junta to abduct two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. According to Bergoglio’s chief accuser, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, he withdrew protection from the two men, effectively enabling the junta to kidnap and torture them.

<p>Niall Carson/AP Wire</p>

Niall Carson/AP Wire

Verbitsky’s claim is based on conversations with Fr Jalics, who was released along with Fr Yorio after five months in captivity. In a statement released by the German Jesuit order where Fr Jalics now works, he said: “Under the assumption that we also had something to do with the guerrillas we were arrested … I cannot comment on the role of Fr Bergoglio in these events.” He added that he was now “reconciled” with the events and wished Pope Francis well.

Fr Yorio died of natural causes in 2000.

The upshot of this is that the central allegation against Pope Francis is one that the source — and the only living alleged victim — won’t verify. This, of course, doesn’t make it untrue, but it does make it nigh impossible to prove.

There is ancillary evidence to support Verbitsky’s claim. The Argentine judiciary, which almost daily hears human-rights cases against former military officers, ruled this year that the Catholic Church was complicit in the junta’s excesses. Bergoglio himself (as Archbishop of Buenos Aires) has testified at two dirty war trials, and invoked his right under Argentine law not to testify at others. His testimony in relation to the disappearances of Frs Yorio and Jalics was described as “evasive” by prosecutor Luis Zamora. He has never been judicially investigated personally.

One person who thinks the Pope is guilty of colluding with the military dictatorship is Estela de la Cuadra. Her sister Elena was one of the opponents of the left-wing regime who was “disappeared” by the military. She was five months pregnant at the time. Estela recounts that her father called on Father Bergoglio (as he then was) for help and that the priest put him in touch with a bishop. This bishop, she says, told her father that he had a granddaughter and that she was “with a good family”. The distribution among military families of babies born to murdered political opponents was systematic during the dictatorship. Estela insists that if the bishop knew of the baby, then Fr Bergoglio must have too, but in 2010 Archbishop Bergoglio claimed that he only learned of the practice after the country returned to democracy in 1983.

The Argentine human-rights organisation Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) has taken a somewhat softer stance. Pope Francis, they say, has many great qualities but he has been — like the Catholic Church as whole — conspicuous by his absence throughout the organisation’s 35-year struggle to identify stolen children and return them to their true families. Abuelas’ president Estela de Carlotto concedes that Pope Francis cannot be accused of active collusion with the military junta but says she believes that he knew of the human-rights abuses and did not speak out.

“Complicity is a strong word in the case of Jorge Bergoglio, but I think the church hierarchy was complicit in error or omission,” she says.

This is what the case against Pope Francis really boils down to — that perhaps he could have done more to help people during the dark days of the last military dictatorship.

But even that may be unfair. Some seriously big guns have come in to bat for the pontiff. Argentina’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was abducted and tortured by the military junta, told BBC Mundo: “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio is not one of them.” Former judge Alicia Oliveira goes even further, describing the claims against the Pope as an “outrage”. In an interview with the Perfil newspaper, she says that she saw Bergoglio twice weekly during the dictatorship, adding: “He was not in favour of the dictatorship, he even helped people try to leave the country.

“Once there was a young man who could not leave because he was a marked man, but he looked like [Bergoglio] so he gave him his identity card and his ‘clergyman’ so he could escape.” Oliveira goes on to explain that she too was on the junta’s blacklist and avoided capture by hiding out at the house of her friend Nilda Garré, Argentina’s current security minister.

Media reports on Pope Francis now fall into two remarkably distinct camps — he’s a humble servant of the poor who can reinvigorate the Catholic Church, or he’s a weak man who lacked the conviction to help others in their darkest hours.

It’s highly improbable that Pope Francis is both these things — and there is far more evidence that he’s the former.

Nick Olle assisted the SBS Dateline team on their report on the Pope’s early career in Argentina. It broadcasts in Australia on March 19 at 9.30pm, EDST, and will be online shortly after.

14 comments on this story
by Roxee

Well if you think the evidence points more to the former than the latter lets see shall we. The Catholic church heirarchy certainly surrounds itself with the trappings of wealth that go far beyond the capital wealth they own, that might be argued is to provide funding for their good works.
Incidently I listened to an interview of Horacio Verbitsky on Democracy Now. In it he claimed he had documentary evidence that Bergolio was conspiring with the Military Junta. He asserted that the evidence proved Bergolio was saying one thing in public, but doing the opposite behind the scenes. I have not seen this evidence, but as he is a journalist is it likely he is lying?

March 19, 2013 @ 8:36pm
by Rachel

Verbitsky is a respected human rights advocate but "my god" he is turning his eye to the current government in Argentina and their brutal destruction of the environment...why is he only a human rights defender against the church and not the government? he also swears on television...a sign of low key behaviour. I like CELS his think tank but not his double standards.

March 20, 2013 @ 1:11am
by LoyolaAlum

Jesuit kidnapped while under Bergoglio
Regarding the Jesuit priest kidnapped in Argentina while under Bergoglio who said he reconciled with the new pope:
This poor Jesuit had no choice but to reconcile with the Pope. He took a vow of poverty. He is 100% dependent on the Jesuit Order. So unless he has a secret Swiss bank account – he had no alternative.

March 20, 2013 @ 1:53am
by Maia Sanchez

Excellent story! Horacio Verbitsky is more of a servant to the Argentinian Goverment than a journalist these days.

March 20, 2013 @ 2:53am
by JuneAnnette

Mental Reservation, a euphemism for LYING , and a peculiar privilege of the Roman Catholic hierarchy goes a long way in explaining the discrepancies in view in the matter of the present pope's assertions as it relates to his activities during Argentina's "dirty war". This practice has been routinely employed by Bishops with respect to the testimony they have given under oath in clergy abuse trials in the US & Ireland and elsewhere, as documented by former Roman Catholic priest, A. W. Richard Sipe.
*Mr. Sipe explains:
36. Secrecy is an unwritten but clear code within the clerical system. The clerical system often extends its prerogative of sacramental confessional confidentiality beyond law or reason to include any material it wishes to keep secret to preserve its image and at times for its convenience. A bishop responded, "I only lie when I have to" when chided by a priest for denying abuse that the bishop knew about. That modus operendi and justification for deception is common. This rationalization is often justified by the traditional moral doctrine of Mental Reservation. Literally this means that one does not have responsibility to tell the truth to one who does not have a right to it. The motivation to save the reputation of the church and the priesthood from scandal has been paramount since the Protestant Reformation. Caution about scandal is frequent in canon law (29 times). The dictum "not to give scandal" is impressed upon students in Catholic education as early as the first grade

March 20, 2013 @ 2:55am
by JuneAnnette

More comments from A. W. Richard Sipe:

37. Cardinals make a vow to the Pope to keep secret anything confided to them that if revealed would cause harm or dishonor to the church. ["I vow…not to reveal to anyone what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church"] That promise of secrecy forms a template within the clerical system to keep internal scandalous behavior under wraps, "for the good of the Church." Another moral teaching of Catholic theology is “Mental Reservation.” Father B. U. Gormless, S.J., defines mental reservation as “an unspoken intention to limit one’s compliance with a contract one is overtly entering into.” This moral doctrine has also been employed to “deny the whole truth” to those who have no right to it or to avoid “greater harm.”


It is evident that in these matters they have done all they could in their power to suppress the truth and obstruct justice. The practice of "mental reservation" is not limited to matters of clergy abuse and is reason enough to call into question Mr. Bergolio's version of events.

March 20, 2013 @ 2:57am
by wilful

George Monbiot has a different take on a later period in this man's career:

March 20, 2013 @ 10:06am
by Georgina

George Monbiot certainly has a fair bit of evidence to support his contention about Pope Francis. Looks like more of the same old menu of sup[port for the status quo coming up...with an extra bit of hypocrisy to spice it up.

March 20, 2013 @ 11:59am
by erplus

doc online shows conclusively (unless forged) now-pope snitched big time and viciously proactively

here are the links to

doc translated:

the original:

interview in english of award-winning journalist who found the doc in the argentinian gov's archives:

more in english:

March 22, 2013 @ 1:46am
by Janice Wallace

Yes, if this is correct it might be correct to say the new Pope did what newspapers do these days, 'comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted' in an Orwellian sized alteration to the correct quote, 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable' (cheers Mr. Dunne).

March 23, 2013 @ 12:54pm
by Colroe

The old saying applies, "where there is smoke there is fire".

March 23, 2013 @ 1:25pm
Show previous 11 comments
by Maia Sanchez

Dear Erplus, I think you should re-check where you are getting your information from. The last article you posted has a picture that is not Bergoglio (not Gregoglio as the article names him). He was 34 at the time of the dictatorship.
Regarding Verbitsky, you should read this article -
If the document that he published was real, Bergoglio should be in prison. When this article was written, Jalics had only spoken once (in quite vague terms) but he has now clarified that: "I myself was once inclined to believe that we were the victims of a denunciation," Jalics said. "[But] at the end of the 90s, after numerous conversations, it became clear to me that this suspicion was unfounded. It is therefore wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio." ( Also, members of the CONADEP (which investigated the crimes of the dictatorship) say it is wrong to accuse Bergoglio of collaborating with the military.

March 24, 2013 @ 3:25am
by Martin Vernengo

I am Argentine, and my opinion is that the article is well balanced. But more important than Bergoglio did or not did during the "iron years" of dictatorship is what he did not do AFTER democracy returned. And specially as archbishop. He never invited the Mothers or Grandmothers to talk and support them in the fight, as some few bishops compromised with human rights did. Why he never spoke loudly about the genocide as an archbishop and when there was nothing to fear (except, of course, the fear of not being elected pope if he seemed "too liberal" for the ultra-conservative vatican, who of course never said anything about the genocide?).

March 26, 2013 @ 7:11am
by flippantguy

Pope go Loco me Like Global Mail Coco

November 28, 2013 @ 1:13am
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